Two of the US military's most prominent voices on Middle East issues are holding out the prospect of improved relations with Iran despite tensions over its nuclear and military ambitions.
Army Lieutenant Martin Dempsey, acting head of the US Central Command, said in an interview that Washington and Tehran could seek common ground on issues like combating the illicit drug trade in Afghanistan if Iran would stop its “malign activity” inside Iraq.
And Army General David Petraeus told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday that although Iran is fueling proxy wars in the Middle East he sees a possibility of “more constructive relations.”
Their remarks reflect a US effort, from President George W. Bush and Defense Secretary Robert Gates on down, to highlight Iranian activity that Washington deems harmful in Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East while also encouraging Tehran to change its behavior.
At a time of speculation that Iran and the US are edging closer to open conflict, the comments appear hopeful, perhaps indicating a view there is a reasonable prospect of avoiding war by using diplomatic and other means to nudge Iran in a new direction.
Dempsey, whose Central Command area of military responsibility includes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said it is clear Iran is exerting its influence across the region, from Lebanon to Iraq and possibly even into Afghanistan.
Even so, Dempsey said on Wednesday at his Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Florida, that he believes there are “plenty of opportunities to have some region-altering events.”
“There is even reason to find common ground with Iran on certain issues, like counternarcotics,” he said, “but it’s pretty difficult to do that when [US] soldiers are dying because of lethal munitions provided by them.”
Dempsey was referring to US allegations that Iran is training Iraqi Shiite militiamen and providing them with weapons.
In his opening statement to his Senate confirmation hearing, Petraeus made a similar point.
“It persists in its nontransparent pursuit of nuclear technology and continues to fund, train and arm dangerous militia organizations,” Petraeus said. “Iran’s activities have been particularly harmful in Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and Afghanistan.”
He added, however, that there is room to hope for change.
“Even as we work with leaders in the region to help protect our partners from Iranian intimidation or coercion, however, we must also explore policies that over the long term offer the possibility of more constructive relations, if that is possible,” Petraeus said.